Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

The following is based on part eleven of Jacob Bronowski’s BBC series on the history of science and invention, “The Ascent of Man” (1973). This one is about quantum physics:

We used to think that science could give us a perfect picture of the material world. But we now know, because of quantum physics in the 1900s, that absolute knowledge is impossible. There is a limit to what we can know – even with the most perfect and most powerful instruments imaginable.

For example, with a high-powered electron microscope you can see atoms. Yet no matter how much you increase the power you will never get a sharp image.

Even something as simple and straightforward as the position of a star in the sky is not perfectly knowable: different human observers come up with different positions and even the same person repeating the observation does not come up with the very same answer each time.

Karl Gauss in 1795 noticed that the observations made a bell curve – the closer you get to the average position, the more observations there are. But you cannot even say that the star is at the average position – all you can say is that it is the most probable position, which is not quite the same thing as its true position.

Gauss lived in Gottingen, a small German university town. It was here, over a hundred years later, in the 1920s, that some of the leading minds of physics came on the train from Berlin to work out the physics of the atom and its parts: quantum physics.

The atom is made of moving parts, such as the electron, and yet there is something very strange about them. Werner Heisenberg in 1927 found that you can tell what the position of an electron is but not its speed and direction – or, if you nail down its speed and direction, then you cannot tell its position. It is one or the other but never both at the same time. This is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Gottingen had something else: a collection of skulls. These skulls were used to support a racist view of the world, a view of the world that dealt in inhuman certainties. It came to power in the person of Hitler. The skies darkened over Europe, as they had in the days of Galileo. The great minds of Europe fled – or fell silent:

It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

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Orwell: Why I Write

The following is based on George Orwell’s “Why I Write” (1946):

George Orwell knew he wanted to be a writer since he was five or six and yet avoided becoming one till he was 24 and did not firmly make up his mind to be one till 33. In the end he found he had to write.

In the 1700s he might have become a Christian minister:

A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;

But he was born to evil times when evil men, like Hitler and Stalin, wanted to rule the world. Democracy was disappearing. After fighting in the Spanish civil war from 1936 to 1937 he made up his mind. He had two talents: he was good with words and he was good at facing unpleasant facts. So from 1936 onwards he used those talents to fight against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

He says there are five motives that drive every writer to one degree or another; they are always there no matter how weak:

  1. To earn a living: Journalists are more concerned about money than serious writers, but even serious writers must eat.
  2. Sheer egoism: “Look at me!” Wanting to be remembered after you die, wanting to bend your life to your will instead of going with the flow like most people do after age 30. Writers share this in common with artists, scientists, businessmen, etc. Writers do not like to admit to it, but it is often their strongest motive.
  3. Aesthetic enthusiasm: the love of words and their beauty, of putting them together in the right way. Even textbook writers feel this. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free of aesthetic considerations.”
  4. Historical impulse: wanting to see things as they are and get the truth out.
  5. Political purpose: wanting to change the world by changing people’s ideas of the kind of society they should work for. Even “art for art’s sake” is a political stand.

In a more peaceful age the political motive would have barely mattered. As it was he found he wrote his best stuff when the political motive was uppermost. Anger at injustice drove him more than anything else:

I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

And yet as a serious writer he wanted to write well, to create art. It was not always easy to do both at the same time.

But in the end, as much as he might try to make sense of it, he says wanting to write is a mystery:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

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angelaAngela Davis, the black revolutionary, grew up in the American South in the 1940s and 1950s, in the days of Jim Crow, in black middle-class Birmingham, Alabama.

Her parents were teachers. They were highly educated compared to most blacks of the time – and most whites too. Her father saved his money and later went into business, buying his own service station. Her parents owned their own house.

Growing up she never went without a meal. She had dance and piano lessons. She never knew poverty. She thought all blacks lived that way. At school she was shocked to see that many black children ate nothing for lunch because they were too poor.

But even though she was not poor, she was still black:

  • She had to go to an all-black school in falling-apart buildings with falling-apart schoolbooks – though they did teach Black history and sang the Black National Anthem!
  • She could not go to the library but had to go round back and ask the black librarian for books.
  • She could not go to the shoe store but had to go round back and ask the black salesman for help.
  • She could not go to the amusement park – that was only for white children.
  • She was not allowed in certain hotels and cinemas: they were just for white people.
  • Even though she was middle-class she was still at the mercy of the police.

She dreamed of getting into the amusement park by wearing a white mask.

One day she and her sister went to the shoe store and walked right through the front door like they were white. They got away with it because they acted like they were foreigners. The white salesmen were falling over each other being nice to them. They were no longer “niggers”. Then they spoke in perfect English and left!

She loved books and was not much good at piano or dance – or the round of black middle-class parties.

One time she was caught in the rain and the other girls found out she had “good hair”. She ran home and cried.

Her house was on Center Street. Across the street everyone was white. It was called Dynamite Hill because whenever a black family tried to move across the street their house was blown up.

She and her friends would sometimes yell “cracker” and “peckerwood” as white people passed by in their cars. It was the only way they had to defend their dignity.

Her high school in Birmingham was said to be the largest black high school in the world. It was certainly the only one in hundreds of miles. It had grass in front only on postcards. And it was violent: fights often broke out, sometimes with knives: all the hatred from white people being turned on each other.

In 1959 at age 15 she left Birmingham for New York: she won a scholarship to study at a private high school there. Eleven years later she became one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted.

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Here are the top songs on the R&B charts now, 10 years ago today , 20 years ago, etc. Through the wonder that still is YouTube, you can hear them all (Can you believe it has already been ten years since “No Scrubs”?):

2009: Jamie Foxx and T-Pain: Blame It

1999: TLC: No Scrubs

1989:  Jody Watley: Real Love

1979: Peaches & Herb: Reunited

1969: The Isley Brothers: It’s Your Thing

1959: Brook Benton: It’s Just a Matter of Time

1949: Big Jay McNeeley’s Blue Jays: The Deacon’s Hop

Curiously, the hardest year was not 1949 but 1989! The top song on May 3rd 1989 was Karyn White’s “Love Saw It”. I could not even find a bad audio of a live performance for that one, so I went for Jody Watley’s “Real Love” which did not become number one till May 6th. But even with that one there was no embeddable music video for the radio version of the song.

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rwandaGenocide (1943) is like homocide, but where homocide is the murder of one man (Latin, homo), genocide is the murder of a people (Latin, gens). Like what Hitler did to the Jews, what Americans did to the American Indians or what the Hutus did to the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.

When Hitler killed the Jews it was not against international law. In fact the word “genocide” was not even in the dictionary! The crime is ancient but our idea of it is a creation of the 1940s.

The word “genocide” was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin. He had gone to the League of Nations ten years before to try to get it outlawed, but they turned him down – even though they knew that the Turks had killed over a million Armenians in the First World War.

It did not become a part of international law, the law between nations, till 1950, five years after the fall of Hitler, and America did not agree to it as a part of international law till 1988!

As a part of international law the word has a very particular meaning:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

genociderwanda11Killing soldiers is not genocide – that is just war. But killing women and children and old men – unarmed people – just to wipe them out because of their race, religion, country or culture – like Jews, Armenians and Tutsis – that is genocide.

Killing people in huge numbers to carry out a revolution or to put down a revolution does not count. So the 20 million killed under Stalin, the 20 million under Mao and the half million under Suharto do not count as genocide.

That is no accident: the word was invented by the winners of the Second World War, so Stalin had a hand in it.

Selected genocides from 1492 to 1945:

  • 1492-1518: Spain: Tainos: 3 million in the Caribbean.
  • 1607-1890: Britain/US: American Indians: ?
  • 1645-1754: Russia: Siberians: ?
  • 1755-1758: China: Zunghars: 600,000.
  • 1788-1901: Britain: Australian Aboriginals: 20,000?
  • 1817-1867: Russia: Circassians: 1.5 million.
  • 1826-1829: Britain: Tasmanians: 6,000.
  • 1870s: Argentina: Patagonians: > 1,300.
  • 1885-1908: Belgium: Congolese: 22 million.
  • 1904-1908: Germany:  Hereros and Nama in Namibia: 70,000.
  • 1915-1918: Ottoman Empire: Greeks, Assyrians, Armenians: 3.15 million.
  • 1919-1920: Russia: Cossacks: 500,000.
  • 1933-1945: Germany and Eastern Europe: Jews, Gypsies and Slavs: 11 million.
  • 1937-1938: Japan: Chinese: 300,000 at Nanjing.
  • 1941-1945: Yugoslavia: Serbs: 650,000.
  • 1943-1944: Ukraine: Poles: 200,000.

All the genocides since 1945 that have killed at least 100,000 people:

  • 1945-1974: Ethiopia: Oromo, Eritreans, Somali: 150,000.
  • 1947: India: Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs: 100,000s.
  • 1961-2003: Iraq: Kurds, Shiites, Kuwaitis: 190,000.
  • 1962-1986: Guatemala: Mayans, 200,000.
  • 1962-2007: Burma: Shan, Karen: 100,000.
  • 1967-1970: Nigeria: Igbos: 3 million.
  • 1972: Burundi: Hutus, 100,000.
  • 1974-1999: Indonesia: East Timorese: 200,000.
  • 1983-2005: Sudan: Nuer, Dinka, Christians, Nuba, etc: 1.9 million.
  • 1992-1995: Bosnia: Muslims: 200,000 – Srebrenica.
  • 1994: Rwanda: Tutsis: 800,000.
  • 1994-2000: Ethiopia: Oromo, etc: 100,000.
  • 2003-2010: Sudan: Darfuris: 400,000.

The eight stages of genocide:

  1. Classification: the division into “us and them”;
  2. Symbolization: applying symbols to the them to mark them out as pariahs, objects of hate;
  3. Dehumanization: seeing the pariahs as not truly human.
  4. Organization: training and arming;
  5. Polarization: silencing the voices in the middle that still stand up for the pariahs;
  6. Preparation: separating the pariahs from everyone else;
  7. Extermination: killing them;
  8. Denial: lying about it.

Source: Genocide Watch (2009), Wikipedia (2014). 

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tirailleurssenegalaisTirailleurs Senegalais (1857-1960) is French for “Senegalese sharpshooters”. It sounds like “Tear-a-year Senegalay”. It was the name for the French Empire’s black army from West Africa. You do not hear about them much, but about 200,000 of them fought in both world wars of the 1900s. They were at Gallipolli and the Somme, for example. They also fought for the empire in Morocco, Vietnam, Syria and Algeria. Despite the name, most were not from Senegal. Many came from what is now Mali and Burkina Faso.

Two-thirds of the French troops who fought to free France from Nazi Germany in 1944 were in fact black, mainly from the Tirailleurs Senegalais. The Americans, however, kept them from entering Paris. They thought it would be “more desirable” if Paris was freed by an all-white army division. They got their way.

Unlike the French and the British, the Americans still had an army separated by race. De Gaulle had to take his mixed army divisions and create an all-white division out of them to suit White American ideas about history. As it was, many of the soldiers who marched into Paris and seemed to be white Frenchmen were in fact Spanish and Middle Eastern.

The Tirailleurs Senegalais were not just robbed of their hero’s welcome: after they got back to Africa they protested about back pay. That led to a massacre by the French on December 1st 1944 at three in the morning at Camp de Thiaroye (there is a film by that name about it).

And there is more: most of the soldiers sank into poverty. After 1959 the French would no longer increase their pension to keep up with rising prices as they did for those  in France.

The Tirailleurs Senegalais were formed in 1857. Most were slaves at first. France did not have enough men to keep and hold its empire. It forced its foreign subjects to fight for the empire too. About half the Tirailleurs Senegalais stayed in West Africa while the rest were sent abroad to extend the empire and keep its peace.

In 1910 the book “La Force Noire” by Charles Mangin came out. Mangin argued that West Africa had a nearly bottomless supply of young men who could fight for France. Not only could blacks be trained to be good soliders, he said, but unlike white people blacks were not as worn out by work nor did they feel pain as much.

None of it was true, but the French jumped on it: they were in fear of the Germans who outnumbered them. So conscription became common in French West Africa. In Senegal about a third of the young men were forced to join the army.

When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 the Tirailleurs Senegalais suffered huge losses, about 17,000, because after the Germans won they killed many of them as savages while letting the white Frenchmen live.

Many of the soldiers were Muslim. The language of command was pidgin French and Bambara.

At least 47,000 died for France and its empire, but to this day no monument stands in Paris to honour them.

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